Sunday, July 07, 2013

Egypt: A Foreshadowing of Things to Come.

The math for Egypt is unrelenting.  Along with other countries in the Middle East, Egypt is among the last to bring it's birthrate down close to replacement rates.  With the ascendancy of a fundamentalist government, population planning programs have gotten lost in the shuffle.  As a result, birth rates have soared, surpassing 32 for every 1,000 people,  — a level last seen in 1991.

Egypt's population has risen from 28 million in 1960 to 84 million in 2012.  With little fertile land, Egypt must import forty percent of its food and sixty percent of it's grain.  For a while, Egypt was a modest oil exporter which helped raise money needed for these imports.  But production peaked in 1996 and the country became a net importer by 2007.

With food and fuel increasingly difficult to import and prices relentlessly rising, it doesn't matter who rules the country--the unrest is likely to continue.  Barring any international intervention to help right the country, the situation will continue to slide downhill.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Economics as if Survival Mattered

John Michael Greer’s new book, “The Wealth of Nature: Economics as if Survival Mattered” is an excellent look at a future of declining fossil fuels and the implications for our economic system. Greer draws heavily on E.F. Schumacher’s work, particularly “Small is Beautiful” which lays out the concept of “appropriate technology” as a way of planning for a future with less energy and different types of energy.

Greer sets up a three part framework for thinking about the economy. The primary economy includes all of the biological, hydrological, tectonic, and other processes of nature that create the natural recourses that the human economy uses. Without nature no human economy would exist. This much seems obvious, but no classical economist—from conservative to Marxist—assigns any real value to nature. All assume that nature is an inexhaustible resource for the human economy.

The secondary economy, according to Greer, consists of the human activities such as farming, mining, and manufacture that create physical goods from natural resources, “the conjunction of human labor and natural goods that produces the goods and services that Nature itself doesn’t provide.” The tertiary economy consists of monetary goods and financial services. These are goods that are produced neither by Nature nor by labor.

The tertiary economy, being removed from physical goods, can grow without limits since governments and banks have the ability to create money out of thin air. However, this ability for unlimited expansion by the tertiary economy can hide the limits of the primary and secondary economies. “Trillions of dollars in credit swaps and derivatives will not keep people from starving in the streets if there’s no food being grown and no housing being built.” A sign that our economy is reaching the limits of growth has been the enormous growth of the tertiary economy compared with the rest of the economy. In recent years the financial industry has accounted for as much as thirty percent of all profits in the U.S.

Of particular importance to the economy, as Greer points out, are fossil fuels which contain highly concentrated energy as a result of millions of years of heat and pressure. There is no alternative source that can deliver such concentrated energy. Renewable energy sources are much more diffuse. The thermodynamic costs of turning wind or solar energy into electricity and then turning the electricity back into a different form of energy is inherently inefficient and requires a high concentration of energy. Generating electricity from wind or solar requires a huge area and much equipment, all of which must be built and maintained using fossil fuels. A recent study even found that there’s a limit to the amount of energy that wind farms can extract from the atmosphere without changing the climate.

Technological fixes will not allow us to continue our profligate use of energy. This is where E.F. Schumacher’s work becomes important. Renewable energy has an important role to play in the future if the appropriate technology is used. Rather than a futile effort to concentrate enough solar energy to make electricity, more efficient uses such as passive solar heat or solar hot water make more sense. Rather than huge windmills requiring significant amounts of resources and energy to build and maintain, smaller windmills to provide electricity for individual homes, such as have been used in decades past, will be more sustainable, although they may require giving up a continuous supply of energy for an intermittent one. Mini-hydroelectric devices could provide power for neighborhoods with access to rivers.

Schumacher’s concept of appropriate technology has largely been ignored in the industrialized nations, but it has made gains in poorer nations that do not have the money for high tech solutions. Through organizations such the Center for Appropriate Technology and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s D-Lab, people are working on simple technologies that can replace the tasks now performed by human labor.

Innovations such as replacing wood charcoal with charcoal made from corn cobs or sugar cane waste fibers can reduce pollution and save lives for the 800 million people who still rely on biomass for fuel. A pedal powered grain mill can replace the drudgery of the mortar and pestle. A simple plastic ring lined with ridges can shell corn kernels off the cob, a job that once took women hours.

Perhaps the irony of the appropriate technology movement is that while it provides simple technology to improve the lives of people in poor nations, it may soften the decline from peak energy in the wealthy nations and lead the way to a more sustainable economy.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Food Riots, 2011

In 2008, a spike in food prices resulted in food riots around the world; the government in Haiti was toppled. Rice stocks were particularly hard hit and some exporting nations cut off their exports. The recession brought prices down while record crops allowed some stockpile rebuilding.

2010 saw a dramatic worsening of the situation. Severe droughts in China and India, Canada and Australia, record heat and fires in Russia and the Ukraine, and floods in Australia and Pakistan all cut crop outputs. Stockpiles plummeted. Russia and India reacted by banning grain exports to keep domestic prices down.

By December the global price of food hit a new record high. Corn prices climbed 94% since June, soybeans are up 51% and wheat was up 80%.

The result has been a fresh round of food riots in January. Food riots began in Algeria at the beginning of January and quickly spread to Tunisia where they became serious enough to force the president to flee the country.

Egypt has experienced the most dramatic riots, sparked by rising food prices—Egypt is the world’s largest importer of wheat--but fed by years of oppressive and corrupt rule. The riots in Egypt were followed by nationwide protests in Yemen demanding that their president step down. Other countries that have seen food riots include Morocco, Jordan, Mozambique and Chile.

The crisis may worsen through the year. Robert Zoellick, president of the World Bank, recently warned that rising food prices are “a threat to global growth and social stability,” and that, for the first time in living memory, the world is just “one poor harvest away from chaos.”

Even the United States faces rising prices. Dennis Conley, an agricultural economist at the University of Nebraska, claims that food reserves in the US are disturbingly low: “I haven’t seen numbers this low that I can remember in the last 20 or 30 years.”

Global Warming and climate change are likely to continue to hamper food production, meaning that the food crisis will become a chronic condition.

If there is to be an answer, it may come from a Worldwatch Institute report issued in January which argues that world hunger can only be cured by a move away from industrial farming toward local food projects. Small scale projects increase local self sufficiency and reduce food waste associated with industrial agriculture.

The report argues that the best way to ensure that everyone gets enough to eat is to change what kind of food is produced and improve its distribution: less meat production, use of more environmentally sustainable agricultural methods that do not rely on petrochemicals, and more local and regional production of food. Many of the farms and organizations highlighted in the report seemed to be having the most success reducing hunger and poverty with work that had little to do with producing more crops, and more to do with eliminating waste.

With populations continuing to grow and with industrial farming methods depleting the soil, these new innovative farming methods will be vital in the future.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Peak Fertilizer

In his new book, The Coming Famine, Julian Cribb details the looming problems we face producing enough fertilizer to meet agricultural needs around the world. Increased fertilizer use was central to the “Green Revolution” of the Twentieth Century which increased food production by two and a half fold. Farmers worldwide now use seven times as much fertilizer as they did fifty years ago.

The need for fertilizer is magnified by modern farming techniques that allow nutrients to bleed from the soil at alarming rates, particularly in rice and wheat producing areas in Asia, Central and South America, and Africa. Poor use of fertilizers has lead to deficiencies of essential micro-nutrients in the soil. Lack of micro-nutrients can result in Vitamin A deficiency, iron deficiency anemia, and zinc deficiency which can result in increased probability of early death for children and women, and impaired IQ development in children. Vitamin A deficiency leads to approximately one million child deaths every year.

Ninety percent of fertilizers used today are derived from nitrogen (N), phosphorous (P), and potassium (K). More and more of these fertilizers are generated from artificial sources.

Ninety-seven percent of the world’s nitrogen fertilizer is made from synthetic ammonia produced by using hydrogen from natural gas. The International Energy Agency has predicted that global gas production will peak sometime in the decade from 2010 to 2020. As natural gas production declines, so will the industrially produced nitrogen fertilizer.

During the global food and energy price spike of 2007-8, some nitrogen fertilizer prices rose by 160 percent while phosphate prices soared 318 percent, a foretaste of things to come. Rising fertilizer prices caused farmers to cut back on their use of fertilizers which in turn led to a reduction in food output.

The world’s main food crops use an estimated 12 million tonnes of phosphorous a year while only 4 million tonnes of phosphorous are generated from natural weathering of rock or atmospheric deposition. The rest is created from phosphate mined from the ground.

Both phosphorous and potassium fertilizers are mined from rock. Although they are both in plentiful supply at the present, the supply is finite and will eventually run out. Estimates are that the world has an eighty year supply of rock phosphates at present level of use. As with all minerals, the highest quality phosphates are being mined first and as they deplete, production will drop and costs will rise.

In 2007, Canadian physicist Patrick Dery attempted to apply M. King Hubbard’s work on peak oil to rock phosphate and came to the conclusion that world production had actually peaked in 1989. Unlike gas and oil there are no readily available substitutes for rock phosphate. Without phosphorus, plants become “phosphorous limited,” constraining production no matter how many other nutrients can be supplied.

Additionally, most of the world’s phosphate production comes from China (37 percent), Morocco and the Western Sahara (32 percent), South Africa (8 percent), and the United States (7 percent). Potash is obtained by mining potassium salts primarily located in 4 countries, Canada (53 percent), Russia (22 percent), Belarus (9 percent) and Germany (9 percent). As demand outstrips supply these countries could form the fertilizer equivalent of OPEC, or even reduce their exports to save supplies for their own crops.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates that the share of mineral fertilizers compared to all sources of nutrients will rise from 43% in 1960 to 84% in 2015. Farmers will be dependent on mineral fertilizers for the overwhelming source of mineral fertilizers just as those minerals reach peak production and begin to decline.

While there is presently a surplus supply of nutrients, increasing demand is outrunning the discovery of new resources, eerily similar to the history of oil discovery and production.

The world must start planning for peak fertilizers now. There is an alternative for nitrogen--fixing nitrogen from the atmosphere though the use of legume crops. Adoption of organic and permaculture farming methods would naturally recycle nutrients into the soil, as would greater use of composting and other methods of conserving and recycling nutrients. Sources of nutrients that are presently thrown away, such as urine--which is high in both N and P--could be harvested to return these nutrients to the soil.

Farmers of the future will need to adopt a very different attitude toward the conservation and recycling of the nutrients their crops require to thrive.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The Bottleneck

When it comes to addressing the major sustainability issues of the day—peak oil, global warming, loss of arable land, dwindling fresh water supplies, overpopulation, there are two kinds of books: the kind that spend several hundred pages detailing the problems that face us in horrific detail, only to end with a “happy chapter” that explains how organic farming, conservation, and/or mass transit will save us; and the kind that outlines the complete collapse of human society—often in luxurious detail.

There is another model, somewhere between miraculous redemption and complete collapse; a model that I would call the bottleneck. The concept of a population bottleneck has an important place in human history. A population bottleneck is a significant reduction in the size of a population that causes the extinction of many genetic lineages within that population, thus decreasing genetic diversity. A population bottleneck in human history probably occurred around 130,000 years ago during the last interglacial period. A second bottleneck occurred around 70,000 years ago with the super-eruption of Toba, a volcano located in northern Sumatra causing an "instant ice age." Dramatic climate change undoubtedly decimated populations in most parts of Africa. Human population may have dropped as low as 5,000 females.

The concept of the bottleneck can be used in a wider context. Just as populations can lose genetic diversity, societies can lose knowledge, technology, even beliefs and ideals. After the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, Europe’s population declined by about a quarter. The institutions of government and learning disappeared. Technological knowledge was lost. Even though Roman roads and aqueducts continued to be used, upkeep on them lapsed and they eventually fell into disrepair. The writings of the Greeks were lost to the West, although fortunately saved by the Moslem world.

Today the world is facing a population overshoot. We are using up non renewable resources, and depleting renewable resources faster than they can be replaced. Resource scarcity, most importantly peak oil, threatens major economic disruption in the short run while global warming will have a major impact in the long run.

On the other hand, humans have proven that they can live in the most extreme environments; and there will be enough resources and renewable energy to support a technologically advanced society of some size, albeit much smaller than today.

This raises the likelihood that the future will not be a complete collapse, but rather a bottleneck. The size of the bottleneck remains to be seen, as does the amount of time it will take to get to the narrowest point. It could be small enough, and quick enough that getting through will seem like a collapse or it could stretch out over time as a gradual decline. If human population returns to pre oil era levels, it would mean a loss of 80 to 90% of the present population.

It won’t happen all at once, peak oil theory envisions a slow decline over the next century. Some oil can be produced for much longer. Global warming will also unfold over many decades at the least. But the effects of both will continue inexorably.

We may be seeing the first signs of a bottleneck. $140 a barrel oil helped tip the economy into recession and the oil peak will likely prevent a normal recovery. The recovery that has happened has benefited only the most wealthy while the middle class continues to be mired in recession, defaults on home mortgages continue to rise, and the ranks of the poor continues to swell. We have an economic bottleneck.

Viewing the future as a bottleneck changes the questions that we should be asking. Much of the green movement is seeking ways to create a sustainable society, when such a thing is not be possible at present levels of population and consumption. Instead, we should be thinking about what we want to get through the bottleneck. Like the medieval monasteries that kept writing alive, we may need institutions to keep today’s knowledge, technology, and beliefs alive.

One of the most important, and perhaps one of the most fragile of those beliefs, is the innate value and sanctity of the individual—perhaps humankind’s greatest achievement. True acceptance of this belief has taken centuries of bloodshed and struggle. One only has to look back two centuries to the United States’ early years. At that time the U.S. was considered a radical experiment among Europe’s kingdoms. But even so, we considered women to be less than man’s equal and blacks and natives to be something so inferior that their rights need not be considered.

The struggle we undertook to reach today’s level of equality was long and painful. Today we take for granted that, as Martin Luther King said, the arc of history bends toward justice. Unfortunately this need not necessarily be true. In a future where only a small fraction of today’s population will survive, ideals could be the first casualty. In medieval times, people readily sacrificed their freedom for the safety that feudal hierarchies provided them. How much will we give up to achieve a similar measure of security in the future?

For those of us who revere these values, the question becomes: how do we form the monasteries of the future that will preserve that which is truly best about our great but flawed civilization?

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Overpopulation, Resource Wars, Revolution and Genocide

With the threat of resource scarcity looming many people are talking about the prospects for resource wars in the future. George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq raised speculation that the U.S. was seeking military domination over Middle Eastern oil. The Arab Israeli wars have often had water rights as one of their causes. The 1967 war had its roots in Lebanese efforts to divert water from a tributary of the Jordan, and the 2006 Lebanon war followed an Israeli warning that Lebanese water works on the Litani would be considered a Causa Belli.

However resource wars are not the only form of violence that face an overpopulated world that has outrun its resources. Complete social breakdown is another possibility. Jared Diamond’s book, “Collapse” presents numerous examples of cultures that overexploited their environment and faced horrendous consequences as a result. From the Easter Islanders to the Mayans, to the Anasazi Indians, ancient cultures have grown beyond the ability of their environment to support them and seen their civilizations crash as a result.

One of the most disturbing examples that Diamond uses is the genocide in Rwanda in 1994. Typically portrayed as an ethnic conflict, the Rwanda killings display a good deal of evidence that population pressures were also a factor. Rwanda and Burundi were two of the most densely populated countries in Africa, and the population will heavily rural, relying on agricultural production for subsistence. The typical farm had shrunk to less than an acre per family—not enough to feed everyone, so that farmers needed to earn outside income to supplement their income. When the coffee market collapsed in the 1990s, it further aggravated economic conditions.

Although the killing began after a radical Hutu government seized control and implemented plans to kill moderate Hutus and Tutsis. The government took to the radio urging Hutus to kill all Tutsis. Estimates of the dead that resulted range as high as a million people.

Once the killing began, it expanded beyond simple ethnic killing, as in the most crowded province of Kanama where most people were impoverished, hungry and desperate. Although there was only one known Tutsi living in Kanama, an estimated five percent of the population was killed. A disproportionate number of the victims were older, larger land owners, or younger, impoverished men and children. The descent into violence provided an opportunity to settle old scores, to gain property, and to relieve the most extreme land pressures.

Rwanda is an extreme example of population pressure exploding into violence, but history records that population pressures have been a factor in many of the major revolutions and state collapses of the early modern era.

“Revolution and Rebellion in the Early Modern World” by Jack Goldstone argues that population pressures are a major factor behind revolution and state collapses. Goldstone studies the English Revolution of 1640 and the French Revolution of 1789, as well as revolts in the Ottoman Empire and China during the same time periods.

Population increases preceded both the English Revolution of 1640 and the French Revolution of 1789. England after 1640 experienced stable or declining populations while France after 1789 much slower growth. Population in both the Ottoman Empire and China did not recover from the wars and plagues of the fourteenth century until the early sixteenth century, but in the next hundred years, population grew rapidly.

Population pressures contributed to state financial stresses brought on by a growing imbalance between revenues and the increasing obligations of a growing population. An increase in the upper classes resulted in severe divisions, including both alienation from the state and intra-elite conflicts, brought on by increasing insecurity and competition for elite positions. Among the general public, population pressures resulted in rising grievances such as high rents and food prices and low wages. At the same time population growth increased the proportion of youth who were most likely to act on revolutionary rhetoric.

The result was a wave of revolutions in the mid seventeenth century, followed by a century of relative stability, then a second wave of revolution in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century.

Stability returned in no small part because the coal powered industrial revolution allowed the incorporation of major new food producing regions into a world market so that a larger population could be supported. The twentieth century brought the oil economy which fueled the “green revolution” in farming and further brought the world’s markets together.

Now, however, we face a looming peak in oil production which will end the era of cheap energy and dramatically change our economy. As the world increasingly feels the pressures of resource scarcity, we face the prospect of violence on an unprecedented scale. The conditions that Goldstone outlined in the early modern era will emerge once again.

A foreshadowing of this came in 2008 when food price spikes resulted in food riots in thirty-seven countries, while hundreds of millions of people slipped into poverty. New prosperity in Asia means more competition among world elites, similar to the early modern period, while youthful populations throughout much of Asia and Africa and the growing number of failed states similarly echo past patterns.

Goldstone’s framework for understanding the waves of revolution and rebellion of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries offer an ominous warning for what we face in our own future.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Some Successful Energy Efficiency Programs

The dilemma of any energy conservation programs is that increasing the efficiency of energy use generally leads to increased energy use. Jevons’ Paradox is named for William Jevons who wrote in 1865 that efficiency increases rather than decreases the amount of energy used. Homeowners with compact florescent light bulbs, efficient appliances, and well insulated homes will be tempted to use the money savings to leave the lights on longer or to turn the heat up higher in the winter. Energy conservation and efficiency programs must factor in this “rebound effect” in their long term planning.

Throughout the industrial era, economic growth has always been accompanied by increased energy use. As per capita GDP rises so does per capita energy use. So when people campaign for reductions in global warming gas emissions, critics complain that this will damage the economy, assuming that cuts in carbon based energy systems will inevitably result in economic decline. It is important that we find examples of countries that have been able to reduce energy consumption while still maintaining healthy economies.

Three countries, Japan, Denmark, and Switzerland, have implemented programs that have reduced per capita energy consumption while maintaining economic growth, breaking the traditional connection between the two.

In the 1980s, Japan’s per capita energy consumption declined as the oil crises forced them to pursue energy savings, just as in most industrial countries. In the early 90s, per capita energy consumption began to grow again along with the economy. But, since the mid 90s, Japan has broken the link between energy growth and economic growth. It has done so by implementing a set of comprehensive policies to promote energy efficiency and hard targets that must be reached.

Japan has tied responsibility for efficiency to all segments of the economy. As one example, vending machine owners typically aren’t concerned with the energy usage of their machines since the building owner pays the bills. The Japanese have mandated that the machine owner must now pay a portion of the electric bill along with the lease. As a result, efficiency of vending machines has increased by one third since the program was implemented.

The centerpiece of the Japanese program is a policy called the “Top Runner Program” which takes the most efficient make of machines as the standard for all others in the industry (including vehicles). When a new model increases efficiency, it becomes the base that all others must reach. Since the program was instituted energy efficiency improvement has been impressive, ranging from 20 percent among diesel freight vehicles to nearly 100 percent for computers.

Denmark also began an energy saving program after the 70s oil shocks, but unlike other countries that relapsed when prices dropped in the 80s, Demark persisted. Denmark has succeeded where others failed due to a combination of tough economic measures, taxes aimed at reducing energy use, and a push for creative energy savings innovations.

Danes pay the highest price for electricity of any industrialized country. As a result the average Dane uses less than half the electricity that the average American uses. Denmark also targets taxes on specific items to reduce energy use. For example, the registration fee for a new car is over 100 percent of the car’s value. In 1980 the Danish government began a policy of supporting combined heat and power, along with a strict new building code which is periodically tightened. This has led to a 20 percent reduction in the average Dane’s heating bill between 1975 and 2001.

As a result of these policies, the per capita energy use in Denmark has not increased since the 1970s while the per capita GDP has doubled.

Switzerland’s conservation program has been primarily voluntary although closely monitored. The government established a SwissEnergy Programme that aims to reduce fossil fuel consumption and CO2 emissions.

In the area of transportation, the SwissEnergy program consists of legally binding measures to promote efficiency, including a sliding scale of registration fees to favor fuel efficient vehicles. SwissEnergy promotes the refurbishment of buildings to meet standards that are twice as efficient as previous ones. The program is funded through carbon tax revenues. SwissEnergy has established feed-in tariffs to promote renewable energy and promotes the use of waste heat and biomass for heating in place of fossil fuels.

Switzerland had achieved the best performance over the last 20 years, showing close to a 20 percent per capita reduction of energy use while still maintaining a growing economy.

There are a variety of approached that can be used to forge a national energy efficiency policy, but it is an issue that must be addressed soon. The necessity of doing something about climate change combined with the looming peak of oil production leave us little choice other than formulating a national policy and reeling from crisis to crisis.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Copenhagen Diagnosis

The University of New South Wales Climate Change Research Center has put together a report surveying scientific papers that have been published since the 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) completed its fourth Assessment Report over three years ago.

“The Copenhagen Diagnosis: Updating the World on Latest Climate Science” found that many climate indicators are worsening at a faster pace than predicted by the IPCC.

Global carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels in 2008 were 40% higher than those in 1990 with a three fold acceleration over the past 18 years. This tracks near the highest scenarios considered by the IPCC. At the same time the fraction of CO2 emissions absorbed by the land and ocean appears to have decreased from 60% to 55%.

A wide variety of satellite and ice measurements show that both the Greenland and Arctic ice sheets are losing mass at an increasing rate. Glaciers in other parts of the world have been melting at an increased rate since 1990. Summer time melting of Arctic sea-ice has accelerated since 2007 far beyond any of the IPCC predictions; averaging 40% less than average IPCC predictions.

Satellite measurements of sea level rise also exceed IPCC predictions, rising 3.4 mm/yr over the past 15 years, about 80% above past IPCC predictions. At this rate, global sea level rise is likely to be twice as much as predicted by the IPCC, perhaps as much as 2 meters.

Rising temperatures are beginning to trigger positive feedback loops. It is believed that as one degree Celsius warming carries moderate risks of passing large scale tipping points and three degrees Celsius warming would bring substantial or severe risks.

The 2005 drought in Western Amazonia resulted in a massive release of carbon, and event that is expected to become more common. If a lengthening of the dry season continues and droughts increase in frequency or severity, the system could reach a tipping point resulting in a dieback of up to 80 percent of the rainforest and its replacement by a savannah.

Farther north, the southern boundary of the permafrost zone has shifted northward over North America, as well as higher on the Tibetan plateau. Similar observations in Europe have noted permafrost thawing. As the permafrost melts, organic materials decay, producing methane. This feedback has not been accounted for in any of the IPCC projections.

Some of the most concerning regions and tipping points include the Greenland ice sheet which may be nearing a tipping point where its melting is irreversible. The West Antarctic ice sheet may also be nearing a melting tipping point.

The Indian summer monsoon is probably already being disrupted. Some future projections show a doubling of drought frequency within a decade.

Global CO2 emissions will have to peak by 2020 and then decline rapidly in order to avoid catastrophic climate change. The fact that they have been accelerating in recent years makes this is an even more daunting challenge.

Governments are moving at a slow pace at best on global warming. Achieving significant reductions will involve massive investment plus changes in public behavior that governments are reluctant to enforce. For those concerned about global warming, the lifeboat strategy is becoming more imperative as time goes on: developing local, self sufficient communities that can survive a low energy future, and can adapt to the changes that are coming.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Defining Sustainability

A recent article in Physics World Magazine by George Crabtree titled, "The Road to Sustainability", addresses the problem of sustainable energy production and sets out three criteria for sustainability. An energy technology must last a long time, do no harm, and leave the environment unchanged. In assessing these criteria the full life cycle of the energy process needs to be considered, including construction and disposal.

This analysis is right on target, but as the author notes, the immediacy of the problems facing us means that;
we do not have the luxury of achieving full sustainability for all of our next-generation energy technologies, we can use these definitions to select our strategic sustainability targets and track our progress toward achieving them.

The article discusses the relative merits of solar, wind, nuclear, biofuels and electric cars. For each of these, Crabtree argues, true sustainability requires significant technological advances. To achieve these, he looks to nanoscience for the answers;

Nanotubes offer versatile and promising opportunities for controlling energy conversion at the nano-scale. TiO2 nanotubes like those pictured above are inexpensive, chemically inert, photostable, provide high surface-to-volume ratio and have band gaps that support sustainable energy technologies like solar water splitting, dye-sensitized solar cells and transparent conducting electrodes. They can be prepared by a variety of electrochemical processes, doped to tune their band gaps and decorated to promote surface catalytic activity.

Crabtree has taken a "technology will save us" approach that promises much even as it relies on unknown and untested technologies. Missing from the article is any discussion of conservation, downsizing or localizing where truly significant savings can be achieved using technology that already exists.

Sustainability, then also requires an acknowledgment of the limits of growth, and that we must design our energy production and usage to fit within those limits.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Resiliant Cities

Resilient Cities: Responding to Peak oil and Climate Change by Peter Newman, Timothy Beatley and Heather Boyer is an important book for anyone interested in transitioning from unsustainable, car based, suburbs to a lower energy, transit based system.

The authors identify seven key elements of a resilient city.

1. Urban areas will be powered by renewable energy technologies from the region to the building level.
2. Every home, neighborhood, and business will be carbon neutral.
3. Cities will shift from large centralized power, water, and waste systems to small-scale and neighborhood-based systems.
4. The potential to harness renewable energy and provide food and fiber locally will become part of urban green infrastructure.
5. Cities and regions will move from linear to circular of closed-loop systems, where substantial amounts of their energy and material need are provided from waste streams.
6. Cities and regions understand renewable energy more generally as a way to build the local economy and nurture a unique special sense of place.
7. Cities, neighborhoods, and regions will be designed to use energy sparingly by offering walkable, transit-oriented options for all supplemented by electric vehicles.

New Urbanism

New Urbanism has become quite popular among city planners, especially in “environmentally conscious” areas such as Montgomery County. The New Urbanists have promoted high density “walkable” communities as an effort to reduce reliance on automobiles. High density neighborhoods are springing up around every metro stop, and even where there is no easily accessibly metro stop.

But Resilient Cities has a warning for the New Urbanists. A study of New Urbanist developments in Perth, Australia, demonstrated some of the weaknesses of a New Urbanist approach. The study compared eleven New Urbanist developments with forty-six conventional suburbs. The New Urbanist developments had a 9 percent switch from cars to walking for local trips, which also came with a 7 percent reduction in obesity.

However the New Urbanist developments showed no difference in total fuel usage for transportation. Fewer car trips for local travel were balanced out by greater use of cars for longer trips and reduced car occupancy.

The quality of transit available was a significant factor. A typical transit trip to work would have taken over 80 minutes compared with 30 minutes for a car trip. None of the New Urbanist suburbs produced the density and mix of uses in their centers to be self sufficient, leaving them reliant on quality transit services to make any difference.

An analysis of transport fuel use across Australian cities has shown several strong relationships between transit quality and fuel use. The closer the development to the city center, the higher the density, and the higher quality of the transit service, the lower the fuel consumption. Quality transit service was defined as whether an area had a better than 15 minute service.


All of the available data shows that building more highways creates more traffic while tearing up highways and creating pedestrian and bicycle friendly cities decreases traffic.

Surveys show that the higher the average speed on freeways, the more fuel per capita is used. Cities with higher congestion have lower fuel use while cities with the least congestion use the most fuel. Increasing road capacity will cause car use to increase to fill the newly available space. A study by the Texas transportation Institute of US cities over the past thirty years shows no difference in the levels of congestion between those cities that invested heavily in roads and those that did not.

There is a growing awareness among some traffic engineers of this problem. Andy Wiley-Schwartz, from Project for Public Spaces says, “Road engineers are realizing that they in the community development business and not just in the facilities development business.” This new viewpoint has crystallized in the “slow road movement.”

Some cities are ahead of the curve on this development. For the past thirty years, Copenhagen has removed two percent per year of its parking space from the streets and squares and created pedestrian areas. Each year car use has declined while cycling and pedestrian use has increased.

In the US, the Complete Streets movement is attempting to create a similar shift, creating new public spaces in every community. The Project for Public Spaces has also sponsored many similar projects.

Examining what shape cities take in the future is vitally important to our ability to adapt to a lower energy economy.